It was Thanksgiving Day, 2017, and I was seated with friends in the Steaming Tender Restaurant, located in Palmer, Massachusetts, about 70 miles west of Boston. This popular eatery occupies the former Union Station, designed by the renowned 19th Century architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, and reflects his trademark Romanesque Revival style. I’ve found no better description of the building and its times than that offered by the Steaming Tender Restaurant, itself, on its website:
Set on the grounds of historic Frederick Law Olmsted Park, constructed by the landscaper in the mid 19th century, Steaming Tender Restaurant is situated inside of a 19th century Romanesque style train station.
During its time, The Palmer Railroad Station was the 3rd largest station in Massachusetts, and helped give Palmer the nickname “The Town of Seven Railroads” that still persists today. The building was designed by world-renowned architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, whose untimely death at the age of 47 cut short a brilliant career. His major works include the designs for Boston’s Trinity Church, Harvard’s Sever Hall and the Harvard Law School, The New York’s State Capitol building in Albany, Albany City Hall, Hampden County Courthouse in Springfield Massachusetts, and the Marshall Field Building in Chicago.
Richardson, a large man, designed buildings that were a reflection of his size. He used heavy arches and stone blocks to form massive buildings, rich with texture. In planning the station for Palmer, Richardson was challenged to design a building that would serve both the New London Northern Railroad as well as the Boston and Albany Lines, replacing the two existing stations. The result was a unique trapezoidal design placed in the triangular area formed by the crossing of the lines. The roof is the chief feature of the station even today, though the long passenger sheds have been removed. In his design, Richardson strove to express the building’s purpose, and make clear the fact that a station is not a house, but a shelter, not a place to live in but a place to wait.
The station was opened to the public on June 1, 1884. It was built by the Flynt Construction Company at a cost of $53,616, and to give an idea of the building’s extravagance by comparison Thorndike Street School was built as Palmer’s first High School in 1888 for only $5,000.
Many famous individuals have passed through Palmer on the Boston and Albany trains including a host of dignitaries such as James K. Polk, Al Smith, Jenny Lind, Andrew Johnson (Vice President), Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Abe Lincoln, and Mark Twain. Jenny Lind had lunch at the hotel on her way through, and Al Smith even got lost and missed his train! The railroad station reached its peak of activity in the early 1900’s. At that time approximately 30 to 40 trains stopped daily at the elegant station.
Three freight lines still pass through Palmer, along with two Amtrack passenger trains. Alas, they no longer stop at Palmer’s Union Station. Today, the station is favored by train buffs who gather daily to watch and record the freight trains passing through. No freight trains ran on Thanksgiving, so I can offer no photos of the mighty beasts hurtling down the tracks. Online, however, I did find some videos recorded by an enthusiast, for those who may be interested.
As you can see from the photos, below, many of the original details and paraphernalia of Union Station have been preserved as ambience for the restaurant. They also serve as reminders of a golden age in the late 19th Century, powered by steam and the spirit of enterprise. The last photo is of a flamboyant Italianate building, opposite the station, symbolic of that Victorian era.